It has taken me years to understand what the Bruce High Quality Foundation is. At first, I thought they were amateur artists playing the role of professionals. After a while I realized they were professional artists playing the role of amateurs. This, in fact, is neatly expressed in their motto: “Professional Problems. Amateur Solutions.”
My confusion over the Bruces might be a bit like what people felt when they first saw Duchamp’s urinalin 1917—their art lies somewhere between a joke and brilliance, between messing about and pushing boundaries. It’s totally irreverent and yet totally thoughtful, and it’s really got me thinking. “Ode to Joy,” a retrospective of the BHQF (as their shorthand goes), opened at the Brooklyn Museum on Thursday night. On Friday they held an enormous party in Brooklyn. On Monday I went to their studio. Now that I am Bruced-out, I’m starting to get what they are all about.
The BHQF are probably the only artists in the position of being devoted to the legacy of a fictional dead artist. Acting under his name—Bruce High Quality—the group exists as a collaborative community of likeminded artists, each of whom is theoretically supposed to remain anonymous. No single artist is credited with being the author of the work. When I asked the Bruce High Quality Foundation if they were a collective, the response was, “No, we don't use the word ‘collective.’ We use the word ‘foundation,’ both for its institutional status—we are an artist that operates like an institution and an institution that operates like an artist—and because Bruce High Quality serves as our ground, our base.”
The new Brooklyn Museum retrospective showcases the Bruces’ many escapades, japes, and ideas, with each work or performance arising from concepts that are, by turns, sincere or satirical. The result is hilarious. Take the performance Public Sculpture Tackle, for which the Bruces dressed in sports gear to literally tackle—football-style—famous sculptures around New York City. This work questions the impregnability and authority of public sculpture, as well as being a pun (“tackling” a subject) and an echo of the verb-based Process Art pieces of artists like Richard Serra. In attempting to knock these monumental sculptures off of their pedestals, they “aspire to invest the experience of public space with wonder,” as they state in their mission statement.
Another work that made me giggle is Bachelors of Avignon, in which BHQF replaces the prostitutes in Picasso’s famous Les Demoiselles d'Avignon with men standing in the same strange poses wearing masks painted in the original’s cubo-primitive style. This, to me, reads as a strong feminist statement made in the most brilliantly silly way. This goofy/serious approach is also reflected in the giant inflatable Scab Rat—perhaps the Bruces’ best-known work—that stands in the middle of one of the rooms. I first came across this piece, called Apology, at the “Argumenta” satellite show during the 2011 Venice Biennale, where these rodent symbol of protest and defiance sat in a field and bowed, mumbling incoherent apologies as people sipped beers around them.
Elsewhere at the show, a mostly monochrome-white recreation of their studio contains homemade chairs and a worktable covered in cigarettes and yellow pencils. Other strange and random objects dot the installation, like a trumpet, a toy car, and a Frisbee. On the walls are blackboards covered in scrawled handwriting. The boards invoke BHQFU, the free “university” established by the Bruces, where various artists and professionals teach free classes on things ranging from artist’s talks to how to deal with taxes. Going through the exhibition, it becomes apparent that each work answers or asks a question concerning the Bruce High Quality Foundation. The only challenge is figuring out what on earth is being addressed.
With every success, the Bruce High Quality Foundation gives back to the community of artists and curious thinkers that they have built around themselves. It was therefore appropriate that on Friday night, the evening after the premiere of the retrospective, the Bruces opened “Götterfunken: Oy to Joy,” an art opening/party at artist Ray Smith’s studio by Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. The entire gaping, one-room main space was filled floor-to-ceiling with artworks by friends of BHQF—art for art’s sake, including both musical and artistic performances. For a group of individuals who strain for anonymity, the number of their friends is staggering—the huge building was filled with revelers.
Since I met BHQF, they have really engaged me in their conversation. They have clearly done the same with their artistic peers, since the show featured some really great works by more established figures like Swoon and Ron Gorchov, as well as younger, lesser-known artists. A giant formless disco ball made by the Bruces was the centerpiece of the exhibition. One of the Bruces told me that it had once fallen at an event, but no one seemed remotely perturbed later on in the night when hundreds of people were dancing under the thing. Live musical performances filled the stage; one of the Bruce’s babies smiled up at me from a sofa. Burgers and hot dogs were being served in an outdoor sitting area, which was packed with fun-loving people. At one point late in the night, BHQF members grabbed the leftover mustard and ketchup and did an impromptu tribal performance with it, with one lying on the ground, his hands outstretched like Jesus, while the other two other Bruces attacked his prone form.
On Monday afternoon at their studio, eating take-out Thai food with a bunch of Bruces, I found it hard to imagine that this group had just unveiled a major retrospective at the Brooklyn museum. They seemed so relaxed—but after a while, they rushed off in separate directions to work, leaving me alone with their cats, Wassily Catdinsky and Martin Kittenberger.
One Bruce disappeared into a woodshop, another into an editing studio. Someone started painting, while another person talked hurriedly on the phone in the office. Walking past a giant pizza with a full model of New York as a topping, I encountered somebody copying a picture of a Greek vase from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Greek and Roman collection in Play Doh. I asked BHQF if they were creating an alternative to the art world. Their response was typical Bruce: “The Bruce High Quality Foundation was created to foster an alternative to everything.” I am excited to see what alternatives they create next.
Watch This Space is a column by writer and art collector Tiffany Zabludowicz. See her previous column here.